PREVIEW: Favored Huskies wary of Aztecs in championship game

Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Favored Huskies wary of Aztecs in championship game

HOUSTON — The trap has been set for the fourth-seeded UConn Huskies.

Prior to the start of the Final Four, the Huskies were installed as prohibitive favorites to claim their fifth national title, a total that would match Duke and Indiana for the fourth most in NCAA Tournament history behind UCLA (11), Kentucky (eight) and North Carolina (six).

The Huskies earned that tag in part because the three other participants — San Diego State, Miami, and Florida Atlantic — were all making their first Final Four appearances and because UConn rolled into NRG Stadium having won each of its Tournament games by double digits.

UConn did little to dispel the notion that it is a runaway train with its thorough, 72-59 dispatching of the Hurricanes in the second national semifinal on Saturday. And now, with the fifth-seeded Aztecs standing between UConn and history, the Huskies are leery of the hype.

“The heavy favorites haven’t fared very well in this one,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “So we’re just going to try to ignore that tag. I just think it helps us a lot, just what we went through in January. We know that if we get away from our identity for a tick, we become very vulnerable.”

After opening the season 14-0, the Huskies (30-8) dropped six of eight games, a slump that both exposed their vulnerabilities and reinforced how UConn has to perform in order to maximize its ample talent. Maintaining its identity includes sourcing points from numerous options offensively, notably via junior forward Adama Sanogo and sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins, while also committing to a brand of defense that is effective if not overlooked by the masses.

What UConn did in stifling Gonzaga and Miami, top-six ranked offenses according to ratings, should not be discounted in any analysis of their title odds. The Huskies held the Bulldogs and Hurricanes to a combined 32.8% shooting, and their defensive preparation for the Aztecs is foremost in their minds. San Diego State is physical and determined, and UConn is well aware.

“I would say guarding the ball one-on-one and being able to guard the ball screens,” Huskies junior guard Andre Jackson Jr. said. “And the way they’re going to be ducking in our bigs, making sure we cut off those drives and not let them get points at the rim, also keeping them off the offensive glass and defense rebound the ball.”

The Huskies are third in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. With a multitude of shooters around Sanogo and guards capable of attacking the rim and forcing defenses to collapse, UConn could serve as a stern test for the Aztecs. San Diego State’s brute force and deep collection of grizzled seniors complement its exacting defensive prep.

“Obviously, we have to control them in transition,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “They’re as good a 3-point shooting team in transition that we’ve played all year.

“And the 3-point shot … it’s such a weapon. We have to take away transition 3s. We have to do a good job in the low post on Sanogo. He’s strong and tough.”

No one would question the Aztecs’ mental fortitude. Lamont Butler sent them to Monday with his buzzer-beater against FAU, but San Diego State set the stage for his game-winner by doing the things that have come to represent its identity, namely, defend and crash the offensive glass.

Their hometown has embraced everything the Aztecs are. One more win would set off a party.

“It’s an awesome feeling to see that the whole city has our back no matter what happens,” Butler said. “And we’re going to keep doing it for them. We love them. We need their support, and we’re going to keep going.”

–MK Bower, Field Level Media

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